First Person

Gov. Pence attempted to block Syrian refugees. Federal court gives us hope by ruling no.

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Abu Omar played with his five daughters in their caravan in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Arguing that Syrian refugees are a potential threat to the safety of Indiana, Gov. Pence tries to bar their entry. In a hopeful turn this week, an appeals court unanimously opposes discrimination against refugees.

Ashley Tsongas is Oxfam America’s Transition director for inclusive and resilient food systems. 

Last week was just one of those weeks.

The tipping point for me was when #AleppoMoment came to mean simply a moment of forgetfulness at the exact moment that people were dying in Aleppo. I could not get past the idea that we were more interested in the act of forgetting than we were in the horror that was being forgotten. This hashtag was born on the same day that news sources were reporting that in Aleppo “families huddle together in the dark, gathered in one room so that they don’t die alone, listening to the roar of the jets and waiting for the bombs to fall.”

I found myself near tears more than once last week from anger as much as sadness.

This week, though, is off to a much better start.

On Monday, I went to bed with news that a Federal appeals court had thwarted Governor Pence’s attempt to bar Syrian refugees from his state while accepting federal funds for refugees.  Tuesday morning, I read the court’s opinion. It was six pages, big font, very satisfying.

Even if reading court opinions is not your thing, I recommend it to anyone who needs a little lift today.  The highlights:

  • The opinion acknowledged that the decision to admit Syrian refugees to the US was a humanitarian one–granted “in recognition of the horrendous conditions in Syria resulting from that nation’s civil war, now entering its sixth year.”
  • In response to the Indiana governor’s argument that his attempt to bar Syrians from Indiana was “an effort to protect…residents from the well‐documented threat of terrorists,” the court said that Governor Pence had failed to present any “evidence that Syrian terrorists are posing as refugees or that Syrian refugees have ever committed acts of terrorism in the United States.” The opinion went even further: “Indeed, as far as can be determined from public sources, no Syrian refugees have been arrested or prosecuted for terrorist acts or attempts in the United States.”
  • Best of all: the opinion challenged the idea that blocking Syrian refugees was not discriminatory, which was the Governor Pence’s firm position. He argued that Syrians were not being targeted because of their nationality, but “solely based on the threat… they pose to the safety of residents of Indiana.” The opinion fired back: “That’s the equivalent of …[the governor] saying…that he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they’re black but because he’s afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive he isn’t discriminating.”

What made last week so hard wasn’t only about Syria and the people of Aleppo. It was about the kind of country we want to live in and how we treat our fellow human beings.  What I truly loved about this opinion was it served as a reminder that fear cannot dictate our actions – we need to remember who we are when we are at our best. #refugeeswelcome

For over 40 years, the US has given refuge to families who fear for their lives and have nowhere else to turn. Families fleeing persecution in the former Soviet Union, civil war in Bosnia, and widespread violence in Sudan have all made the US their home and integrated into our communities through this program.

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